Field Notes on a Songwriter’s Centennial — Part II

How long does it last?
Can love be measured by the hours in a day?

September 24th is the centennial birthday of my late father, the songwriter
Carl Sigman (1909-2000), who wrote nearly a thousand songs, including “It’s
All In The Game,” “(Where Do I Begin) Love Story,” “Ebb Tide,” “What Now,
My Love,” “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” and “Arrivederci, Roma.” In the second of two parts, I offer some not altogether random notes on the years 1959-2009.

When my dad awoke to the ’60s, it dawned on him that the times they were
a’changin’. Determined to keep writing hits, he got in on the girl-group
craze with The Angels’ heavenly “Till” and had a Top 5 smash with Brenda
Lee’s heart-wrenching “Losing You,” produced by Nashville legend Owen

In 1964, at the height of Beatlemania — by which time songwriters who
didn’t smoke pot and perform their own material were becoming an endangered
species — Beatles producer George Martin conjured a U.K./U.S. chartmaker
with 21-year-old Liverpudlian Cilla Black’s (nee Priscilla White!) stirring
recording of Carl’s “You’re My World,” one of my all-time favorite tracks.
Helen Reddy’s tepid reprise of the song was a tepid hit 13 years later.

What do Mel Torme, Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Pussycat Dolls have in
common? Skipping decades from the ’60s through the ’80s to 2005, they all
recorded “Right Now,” my dad’s collaboration with jazz great Herbie Mann.

A friend recently sent me three sublime CDs comprising 28 versions of Van
Morrison performing “It’s All In The Game” live in various stages of
inspiration and inebriation.

Frank Sinatra committed over a dozen of my dad’s songs to vinyl, and sang
at least another half dozen in recorded radio broadcasts. His versions of
“I Could Have Told You,” “A Day In The Life Of A Fool” and “The World We
Knew” are definitive.

But even Frank didn’t always get it right. His swingin’, finger snappin’
interpretation of Carl’s most despairing song, “What Now, My Love” — in
which the singer pleads, Now that you’ve left me how can I live through
another day? — isn’t quite, well, suicidal enough. You’re better off
listening to Sonny & Cher’s jangly 1966 hit, or heartfelt versions by
Shirley Bassey, Elvis Presley, Judy Garland or Miss Piggy.

Once, at a dinner party, a woman remarked that Carl’s love songs were so
deep they could only have been inspired by his wife, Terry. Carl, who could
never ever tell a lie, replied, “No. Actually, they’re just songs.”

In the ’50s Carl wrote “Answer Me, My Lord,” and Frankie Laine quickly took
it to No.1 in the U.K. But the U.S. publisher thought the lyric was too
religious, so my dad substituted “Love” for “Lord.” The resulting charttoppers by Vaughn Monroe and Nat Cole on these shores paved the way for the song’s 56-year journey from croon (Bing Crosby) to pop (Petula Clark) to doo wop (Harptones) to country (Marty Robbins) to R&B (Impressions) to rock/soul (Johnny Rivers) to art rock (Bryan Ferry) to jazz (Pharaoh Sanders). Opera superstar Renee Fleming even recorded it a couple of years ago and sang it last season on Elvis Costello’s cable TV show, “Spectacle,” with Bill Frissell on guitar.

And two of the greatest popular music geniuses of our time have included
“Answer Me” in their repertoires: Bob Dylan often performed it in concert
in the early ’90s — playing the entire melody on guitar before singing a
note — and Joni Mitchell gave it a lush, gorgeous treatment in 2000.

Carl Sigman-Peter DeRose’s “A Marshmallow World” has been a
Christmas/winter perennial for decades and still gets new recordings every
year. Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Brenda Lee sang it early on and Darlene
Love knocked it out of the park for the Phil Spector Christmas
in the ’60s. In recent years, Los Straitjackets, Regis Philbin/Steve Tyrell, The Cheetah Girls, Kristin Chenoweth/John Pizzarelli and Raul Malo have added their voices, and last season even conservative commentator Mark Steyn joined the snowball fight with an affectionate take.

A friend of my parents would tell music directors on cruise ships he was Carl
Sigman, whereupon my dad’s songs would get played and the faux Carl would
take the bows and soak up the kudos.

When Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound treatment propelled the Righteous
Brothers’ “Ebb Tide” to the Top 5 in 1965, my high school social life
turned a corner: several cheerleaders actually became aware of my
existence. When Lenny Welch sang it at my senior prom two years later, he
either called me up to the stage or didn’t, depending on whom you ask and
what substances they’d consumed. I prefer to think he did, but couldn’t
swear to it.

Inexplicably, hundreds of German and Eastern European rock bands have produced
note-for-note covers of Louis Prima’s gloriously demented rendering of
“Buona Sera,” which floored my dad, who thought he’d written a sweet,
simple love song.

Paramount chief Bob Evans nixed my father’s original lyric for the movie
theme from the 1970 weeper “Love Story” because he thought the last two
words in the line, “A moment’s richness in the mystery of time …so Jenny
came” were too, uh, sexually suggestive. Livid, Carl paced the living room
floor of our Great Neck home, unable to come up with an alternative. In
frustration, he turned to my mom and said, “Where do I begin?” She
recognized the perfect fit of those words with the opening notes of the
melody, and you know the rest.

When both were in their ’80s, Carl got a call from the aforementioned
Frankie Laine, who was convinced that all the “Festival of the Bulls” theme
needed to become a smash hit was a Carl Sigman lyric. My dad’s immediate
reaction was pure Michael Corleone: “Just when I think I’m out of it, they
pull me back in.” He relented and wrote a pretty decent lyric, but
Frankie’s dream of a four-legged bookend to his classic “Mule Train” hasn’t yet

As 89-year-old Carl was wheeled into a Long Island operating room for heart
surgery, he quipped, “Aorta be in pictures.”

Not long before he died, my father awoke from a dream in which he had
written lyrics to Frederic Chopin’s immortal “Revolutionary Etude.” After
breakfast, he sat down at his desk and transcribed the words to “Unmask
Your Heart.” (Note to Mr. Buble or Ms. Keys: I have a nice demo…) And
that was his swan song, a collaboration — across the oceans and the
centuries — with as gifted a tunesmith as this world has seen.

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